Begum Jaan movie review: Vidya Balan’s acting abilities crumble under the burden of this over dramatic mess

Begum Jaan

Begum Jaan

Mahesh Bhatt and his home production, Vishesh Films, takes a break from Emraan Hashmi thrillers and go back in history to make a movie on the partition and the sufferings it caused to our ancestors. That’s Begum Jaan for you. It is a remake of 2015 Bengali movie, Rajkahini, and stars Vidya Balan in the main role, along with a huge ensemble cast involving Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Pitobash, Chunky Pandey, Ashish Vidyarthi, Rajit Kapoor, Vivek Mushran, Ila Arun, Mishti and Naseeruddin Shah. Srijit Mukerji, who directed the original movie, helms this one as well.

Here’s our review of Begum Jaan.

What’s it about

Before I get down to the review, I would recommend you to watch Ram Madhvani’s brilliant short film on Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man who drew the border between India and Pakistan on the western side –  This Bloody Line. The reason why I am telling you this is because the late Radcliffe is made out to be an unseen villain in Begum Jaan, while in reality, he is nothing more that an unfortunate puppet for British to divide our country before leaving. Anyway, let’s get to the plot…

In the year 1947, the aforementioned Radcliffe, who actually didn’t have much clue about the country’s topography, and drew a border which led to a lot of bloodshed on both sides. One unfortunate victim of this line was Begum Jaan’s kotha that was situated in Punjab, far away from the villages. Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) is the head of the 11 sex workers that live there, who is like their mother and disciplinarian at the same time. The kotha is under the patronage of the local Maharaja (Naseeruddin Shah), which gives Begum Jaan the gumption to take on even the police. So when the administrators from both India and Pakistan (Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor) ask her to evict the kotha, she stubbornly refuses to do so. When she continues to reject their notices and even threatens, the administrators resort to an extremely nefarious method to get her and her coterie removed, that end up disastrously for all involved.

What’s hot

The premise for Begum Jaan is definitely hard-hitting and at the same time, also empowering at times, at least on paper. The partition was one of the saddest and also one of the most shameful periods in our history. Though 70 years have gone by, we still need movies that need to remind us what happens when we end up fighting with each other, something our political parties are making us do. Also, the movie wants to advocate that women’s situation hasn’t improved much either – they end up being the bigger victims when males fight over dominance and superiority. This fact is stated when the movie begins in 2016 when a woman is molested in the presence of her male friend, before the narrative shifts to 1947. There are some hard-hitting and gut-wrenching moments scattered here and there. One scene that comes to my mind when Begum slaps a raped girl multiple times to get a reaction from her. The scene where Begum Jaan challenges the administrators is also powerful. But the best moment for me was when Begum’s girls celebrate India’s independence, Begum is actually worried about the loss of income for the day, as she knows independence doesn’t make any difference to their plight. But they are quite far and few. It really helps that Begum Jaan is wonderfully played by Vidya Balan. It is a real bold performance from the actress, after The Dirty Picture, and Vidya Balan has let go of her inhibitions to get into the skin of the character. Though the movie lets her scream, shout and abuse a lot, it is in the quieter moments that Vidya shines the best. Check out that scene where she mollifies the king or her smiling acceptance of her final fate –  that’s the class of her performance. Among the ensemble cast, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Vivek Mushran and Chunky Pandey (what an evil makeover!) stand out. Naseeruddin Shah is very effective in his two-scene cameo, especially the scene where he places a creepy request to Begum Jaan. Some of the dialogues hit right at the sweet spot, while Anu Malik’s score is a highlight, the Prem Mein Tohre song being creme de la creme. However, the placement of the songs leaves a lot to be desired.

What’s not

The premise and some of the character depictions may be hard-hitting, but they are done some real injustice here by a omelodramatic and overbearing screenplay. In fact, it nearly undoes the good work done by Vidya, cluttering the movie with too many characters and unwanted subplots. The first half takes its own sweet time to get to the point, showing lengthy scenes of girls bonding with each other. It would have been great for character development, but the director’s insistence on making the actors get into the theatrical mode, screaming and shouting at each other that we cannot relate to them at all. When I watched these scenes I couldn’t help myself but remember Shyam Benegal’s fantastic Mandi that shows you don’t need to screech every time, just because you are playing a sex worker. Unfortunately, the director Srijit Mukherji believes that you need to actually scream and shout to get your point across each other. There are also scenes where Ila Arun’s character narrates tales from history to a young girl where she imagines the lead female character to be Begum Jaan, that could have been cut out. Also, I found Begum Jaan to be a very shallow person, who couldn’t let go of her ego for the sake of her co-workers. She wasn’t born in that kotha, so she and her girls could have moved anywhere else and started their livelihood there. So her insistence on staying adamantly at the place at the cost of their lives sounds unjustified, and hence we just don’t connect with their characters even in their darkest moments. Also why the writers want to show the administrators as victims of partition and yet make them kind of antagonists is beyond my comprehension. The scenes where they keep on blabbering about how the other person’s community destroyed his become very cumbersome. The subplot involving the lovelorn prostitute (Pallavi Sharda) and the Master (Vivek Mushran) is added for shock value. Also I agree that men shown in the movie are complete a-holes, but male-bashing in Begum Jaan is a bit too much.

Speaking of shock value, I haven’t seen the Bengali version so don’t know how bold it is and whether the script justifies the boldness. But here, the bold elements are too in-your-face and unnecessary. There is a scene between Gauahar Khan and Pitobash, where she takes his hand and puts it on her private parts, while lecturing him about their significance. The scene may be well-intentioned, but it was quite forced and actually inserted between a far more interesting scene. The violent climax, save for a touching final moment for the girls, is quite less effective despite the bloodshed. However, the aftermath involving the characters of Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, and Rajesh Sharma will make you cringe in embarrassment.

What to do

Begum Jaan held a lot of promise for me after that scintillating trailer. However, the movie failed to replicate the trailer’s tight framework, and instead, makes an overdramatic mess of such an important chapter in our history. It’s a pity since Vidya Balan is really good here, and the premise looks promising on paper. Avoid Begum Jaan, unless you have a thing for overdramatic fare.

Rating:2.0 out of 5

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